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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Florida falls in SEC Soccer Tourney semifinals

ORANGE BEACH, Ala. - Seven days can make a big difference.

No. 8 Florida dominated South Carolina en route to a regular-season Southeastern Conference Championship on Oct. 30. One week later, the Gamecocks (17-3-1) jumped on the Gators (15-5-2) early in the rematch, knocking the top seed out of the SEC Tournament 1-0 in the semifinals Friday.

The two games could not have been more different for the Gators.

In the regular season matchup, UF scored a pair of early goals which visibly shook South Carolina's confidence on the way to a 3-0 Florida win. On Friday, the Gators played a sloppy first half and gave the Gamecocks a chance to land an upset.

"I don't know if we were as up for it mentally as they were because that was a big revenge game for them," midfielder Brooke Thigpen said.

The Gators were out of sync early. Players failed to make runs at the ball when passes dictated it and - in the rare case when teammates were on the same wavelength - passes were off target.

As a result, South Carolina spent a lot of time in UF's defensive third.

"They didn't create many chances, we gave them the chances," defender Lauren Hyde said.

She also said Florida's inability to keep possession made the backline's job more difficult.

UF turned away the first couple South Carolina attacks, but the Gamecocks continued to play near the Gators' goal, eventually drawing a foul inside the box when Holly King and Kat Williamson sandwiched South Carolina's Lindsay Small.

The ensuing penalty kick was taken by Kim Miller, and she placed the ball perfectly in the upper-left corner of the goal, giving goalkeeper Katie Fraine no chance to record a save and ending Florida's five-game shutout streak.

In a sport where one goal can make all the difference, Miller's strike was enough for the Gamecocks.

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Coach Becky Burleigh shifted the team's alignment in the second half, taking a player out of the defensive midfield position and adding a forward. UF started creating chances after halftime, but it was unable to capitalize.

Florida's closest shot came in the 48th minute when sophomore Lindsay Thompson took a left-footed shot from 18 yards out that banged off the top crossbar.

Burleigh has said in the past that teams try to force the tempo when trailing, but she said the team played with good composure even while behind Friday.

"We played as well in the second half as we did (last week) in Gainesville," Burleigh said.

Regardless, Florida found itself in a race against the clock late in the game. The team had several opportunities, especially in the last ten minutes when the ball stayed on South Carolina's side of the field for almost the entire time. But the ball never found South Carolina's net.

For the second consecutive year, the Gators failed to reach the tournament finals after winning the regular season SEC championship.

Florida's next game will be Friday, although its opponent will not be revealed until Monday night, when the seeding for the NCAA tournament will be announced.

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